The use of cognitive computing or artificial intelligence in the field of human resources (HR) is receiving growing attention. While the more ‘tech-minded’ might already be eagerly exploring new cognitive solutions, many practitioners are likely taking a more measured approach and would welcome guidance about just when, where and how to best use cognitive applications in HR. This blog, based on research and early adopter experiences, strives to provide such guidance.

 

What is cognitive?

 

Cognitive computing solutions have four key features that set them apart from other applications:

 

  1. They understand: Cognitive systems can receive and process unstructured information in ways similar to humans. They understand language patterns and sensory inputs, including text, pictures and auditory cues. For example, a cognitive system can quickly examine thousands of hours of HR service center recordings to identify key words and patterns based on frequency, tone and sentiment.
  2. They can reason: Cognitive systems grasp underlying concepts, form hypotheses, and infer and extract ideas. Consider the case of a manager who is looking to fill an internal role: A cognitive system could look at various data sources, including a candidate’s professional experience and previous performance, and then further analyze the candidate against the characteristics of other successful job holders to determine if he or she would be a strong fit for the organization.
  3. They learn: Cognitive systems learn and improve through every data point, interaction and outcome, building a deep and broad knowledge base that is always up-to-date. In the HR world, with a constant stream of changing policies and new regulations, this capability becomes critical.
  4. They interact: People can communicate and interact with cognitive systems using natural language, which brings the power of this technology to a broad range of users. No specialized skills are needed to query cognitive systems and derive insights.

 

What do employees think about cognitive HR solutions?

 

Cognitive technology brings tremendous potential benefits for HR. To fully realize this potential, employees must embrace and adopt it, and they should be just as comfortable receiving advice from cognitive applications as they are from humans.

 

To determine the readiness of workers to engage with and derive insights from cognitive systems, the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute examined the responses of more than 8,600 employees* to a series of typical HR-related scenarios. Each scenario described either a cognitive-enabled approach to support a decision – a mobile cognitive chatbot, for example – or a traditional HR source of information, such as an e-mail exchange with a manager. Participants were randomly assigned to either a cognitive or traditional variation of each scenario. The results give some clear direction for organizations wondering where to start their cognitive journey. Research highlights include:

 

  • Employees make similar decisions regardless of source (cognitive or traditional)

Respondents made similar decisions regardless of whether they experienced the traditional or cognitive version of the scenarios. This suggests that they are able to glean appropriate information from cognitive systems.

 

  • Cognitive can offer informational advantages

When asked if they had sufficient information in the scenarios, respondents who received information from cognitive systems tended to answer “yes” more frequently than respondents given the traditional scenarios. This difference was especially pronounced for more complex decisions.

 

  • Cognitive is equally or more trustworthy in less personal situations

Whether respondents trusted the information being given varied by scenario. The findings suggest that for more complex and less personal decisions, information received from cognitive applications is equally or more trustworthy than information from traditional sources. However, in the more personally evaluative scenario (featuring feedback about tone of voice), information from the traditional source was trusted more.

 

So, what is the cognitive sweet spot?

 

Given these research findings, the advantages of cognitive solutions and the experiences of early adopters, we can identity clear factors for success. These factors represent the “sweet spot” where cognitive solutions will have the most powerful impact. Essentially, organizations should look for scenarios where:

 

  • Decisions are information-rich and highly complex – requiring a wide variety of inputs from different data sources.
  • Interactions by users are frequent and varied – where large volumes of requests must be interpreted and addressed.
  • High volumes of unstructured information are involved – such as free-form text, images and auditory cues.
  • The output is expected to be customized and personalized (but not too personal) – to address the individual needs of a global and diverse workforce

 

*The IBM Smarter Workforce Institute surveyed over 8,600 English-speaking employees from companies around the globe at all levels in the organization. Respondents were randomly assigned traditional or cognitive approaches for typical HR scenarios and, for each scenario, asked to answer questions about their confidence levels, trust and decision paths.

 

To find out how cognitive capabilities could address your HR challenges in the areas of talent acquisition, onboarding, talent development and HR operations, download our report Extending expertise: How cognitive computing is transforming HR and the employee experience.

 

 

About the Author

 

Sheri L. Feinzig, Ph.D., is the Director of IBM’s Smarter Workforce Institute and has over 20 years of experience in human resources research, organizational change management and business transformation. Sheri has applied her analytical and methodological expertise to numerous research-based projects on topics such as employee retention, employee engagement, job design and organizational culture. Additional areas of expertise include social network analysis, performance feedback and knowledge management. Sheri received her Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University at Albany, State University of New York. She has served as an adjunct professor in the Psychology departments of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York and the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, Illinois.